My mother was Croatian, my father was Slovak. As a result, I was immersed in two different Eastern European cultures, each with their own set of traditions. It seems that these traditions came to the forefront during the holiday season.
As a Slovak, I was fortunate to be able experience one of the most beloved Christmas traditions, the Vilija (pronounced vă – lē´ -yă.) Vilija is the traditional Christmas eve gathering and dinner that is rich with traditional foods, religious symbolism and family.
The vilija continues to this day in my family, and although the venue may have changed, the traditions and symbolism remains intact. What an incredible testimony and homage to the parents, grandparents and hunky culture that helped to set our moral compass.
A bit further in this post, I have included a 2005 article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by Karin Welzel. The author does an outstanding job of explaining the tradition, the content and the meaning behind the celebration. As a first generation Slovak Family, we followed these traditions to an extent, but through the years, they were adapted to a degree. Rather than be redundant, allow me to give you my impressions and memories of the event as I experienced it in the 50’s.
The vilija always took place at my Uncle Gary and Aunt Helen’s home in West Mifflin. Just like a scene from “A Big Fat Greek Wedding,” I remember entering their house and immediately getting drawn into the crowd of family that were already preparing the feast.
Their home was always decked out with Christmas decorations galore and every light in the house seemed to be burning. Usually, by Christmas Eve in Western Pennsylvania, the weather had usually taken a definite turn and it was normally either snowing or on the verge of doing so. For that reason, whenever I entered their home, it felt so toasty warm compared to the outdoors. Their windows were usually steamed up from all of the cooking that was occurring and from the cranked-up thermostat (Grandma was always cold you know). And then there were the smells! The freshly cut Christmas tree scent hit me as soon as I entered the house. (It must have been the magic aspirins!) Combined with the smell of fresh pine was the amazing aroma emanating from the kitchen and dining room.
All of my aunts were buzzing around a rather cramped kitchen preparing all of the traditional foods. Somehow, all of the foods which were part of our everyday lives growing up as a hunky smelled so much better on Christmas Eve! Stuffed cabbages, pirogies, kielbasa and poppy seed rolls smelled like food for the gods! I was a very picky eater in those days, but somehow, I became a modern-day foodie during the vilija.
My uncles had the responsibility of creating a dining surface large enough to accommodate our ever-growing family. Since my dad was one of 8 children, the number of people attending was quite large. There was no such thing as a “kids table” in those days, so the eating surface had to accommodate approximately 25 people PLUS the feast itself. The table was usually assembled using two tables which supported large sheets of plywood. It was at least 16 feet long, extended from the dining room into the living room and was always covered with crisp white linens. There were never any decorations on the table, only food, lots and lots of food! The chairs that surrounded the table were a potpourri of chairs from around the house, the out-of-town neighbors and often times from St. Michael’s Church hall. Your seat may not have matched with the neighboring chair, but every family member had their place.
The timing of the dinner was very strategic. It was essential that we ate and were finished with dinner by 6 p.m. In those days, it was important that we allowed for the correct about of time before receiving communion at midnight mass. The Roman Catholic Church has very specific rules governing communion.
Grandpa would always begin the vilija with a blessing. This would be followed by the passing of oplatky (unleavened bread that had been blessed by the parish priest). We would pass a large square piece of oplatky and each person would break a small piece off to be consumed in unison at the end of Grandpa’s blessing. I remember that the oplatky would always come to the table in an envelope that was decorated with a colorful representation of the birth of Christ.
Once we had taken our oplatky, the feast began. With amazing speed and dexterity, plates and bowls of food were passed around the table and plates were loaded up to the max. Jokes, teasing, memories, and plans for the holidays were just some of the discussions that occurred during the meal. My dad would always be yelled at by my mom and my Aunt Helen for something he might have said to instigate some trouble, but that was expected, and welcome. After the main courses were completed, out came platters and platters of goodies. Poppyseed, apricots and walnuts seemed to be part of every creation. Each would probably be capable of clogging any artery in the room, but somehow, it either didn’t happen or didn’t matter in those days. Our naivety was bliss in those days.
Once the dinner was over, my aunts would begin clean-up. Sexist or not, that was the way it was in those days. The men would gather and have some celebratory “shots” and beers, the kids would share their wish lists with each other and the ladies would clean-up the remnants of the feast. There seemed to be an unspoken exception to the communion rule in our family that shots and beers didn’t count when it came to abstaining before communion. Go figure. After everything was in order, each family departed to get ready for midnight mass at their own parish church. Fully stuffed and raring to go, the remainder of the Christmas Eve activities still lay ahead.
Each individual family unit would attend Midnight Mass at their own parish. The majority of my Slovak aunt and uncles on my dad’s side attended St. Michael’s Parish in Munhall/Homestead. My Uncle Hank’s family were members of St. Theresa’s in Munhall and we were members of Holy Name Church in Duquesne.
I remember the sensory overload that hit me every year at midnight mass at Holy Name. After entering the church from the cold, dark night, the church looked brighter and more radiant that at any other time. The was a distinct fragrance that filled the air. It was a combination of the radiators going full tilt to warm the church, the smell of beeswax candles burning brightly, the aroma of pine and poinsettia, and the subtle whiffs of cologne that you could detect from the ladies in congregation.
Before becoming an altar boy, my perspective was always the same sitting with my family. We always sat on the extreme right hand side of the church, approximately three-quarters of the way from the front of the church. If nothing else, we were consistent. The location was a bit awkward for me however. It was great for hearing the choir perfectly, but it made it impossible to be able to turn around and gawk at them.
Halfway through the Mass, I was usually fidgety and VERY anxious to get on with the evening. Although it seemed like hours, we were finally able to head on out to enjoy the rest of our Christmas Eve traditions. Prior to the death of my mom when I was 12, our Christmas eve ended shortly after we returned home after Mass. Mom would allow my brother and I to have a few cookies and a glass of milk before we went to bed, and then set out a plate for Santa. We were ALWAYS very cooperative on Christmas Eve and went straight to bed. Steve and I would usually discuss what would be happening that evening while we tried to quash our excitement enough to sleep. In truth, the fact that it was already into the wee hours of the morning, it didn’t take long for us to conk out.
After my mother had passed away, we changed our Christmas Eve tradition. Instead of returning home, Dad, Steve and I would traipse on up to 3334 Duquesne Ave, Grandpa’s house, and join all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for a continuation of the Christmas celebration. Aside from the re-emergence of all of the food from earlier in the evening, shots and beer as well as whiskey sours would become the “beverages of choice” for the evening.
I never bought into the next part of the evening however. Everyone would begin presenting and opening their Christmas gifts. This included any gifts that had been previously placed under the tree. I never understood this concept, since the excitement on would experience on Christmas morning FAR outweighed opening gifts the night before. To this day, the conflict and debate continues in my family. My oldest daughter, Megan, married into a family who firmly held onto their tradition of opening ALL presents on Christmas Eve. I am happy to report that she has managed to uphold the Christmas morning unveiling… so far. Now that she’s the Mom in the house with my grandson and another on the way, Andy, her husband accepts the adage, “If Momma Ain’t Happy, Ain’t NOBODY Happy!”
In addition to the Tribune-Review article, I wanted to share a few family recipes that you might enjoy and consider using for Christmas this year. I hope you try them and ENJOY them with your families:
Peggy Volk Rusnica and Helen Volk
The following were part of the traditional dinner served on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Mushroom and Potato Soup Christmas Pea and Potato Soup
10 potatoes, cubed
2 lbs fresh mushrooms, or the canned equivalent, drained
2 cans sweet peas, drained, or the frozen equivalent
1/2 c flour
2 sticks butter or margarine
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
2 tbsp. vinegar
Boil potatoes until soft in approximately 4 quarts of water, reserving the water for later use. Slice the mushrooms. If using fresh mushrooms, precook in water for 15 minutes on a low boil, discarding water.
Divide the potatoes into two different pots. Place the mushrooms in one of the pots with the potatoes. Place the peas in the other pot of potatoes.
In a frying pan, create a zaprazka (roux) with flour and butter. Begin by melting the butter and sautéing the onion in the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Slowly add the flour to create the zaprazke (roux) that is medium brown in color. Slowly add reserved water from potatoes to the zaprazka over a low heat, stirring constantly. Heat until thickened.
Divide into two equal parts, adding one to the mushroom and potato mixture and one to the peas and potato mixture. Additional water can be added, if needed.
Add approximately 2 tablespoons (or to taste) of vinegar to the mushroom soup.
COLD DOUGH HORNS
Peggy Volk Rusnica and Helen Volk
This recipe is one that we have been using for years and it has never failed!
4 sticks butter or margarine
4 Tbsp. baking powder
4 Tbsp. sour cream
Apricot filling, or filling of choice
Mix flour with butter or margarine, as for pie dough. Beat eggs lightly. Add to flour mixture. Add baking powder and sour cream. Mix all together and refrigerate overnight.
Roll the dough in sugar and flour. Cut in 4 inch squares and fill with apricot or other filling. After filling, bring one corner over the other at opposite ends. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Approximately 120 horns.
RUSSIAN APRICOT TORTE
1 pkg. dry yeast mixed with t c. water
4 c. flour, not self rising
3 sticks Oleo
4 egg yolks
1/2 c. milk
Combine yeast with warm water and set aside. Sift flour in a bowl and blend with Oleo until mealy. Add slightly beaten egg yolks, milk and yeast. Blend and stir mixture until it pulls away from the bowl. Place on a floured board and knead for a few minutes. Divide and cut dough into 3 sections. Let rise for 30 minutes. Roll the first section and place on a slightly greased 15 x 10 inch cookie sheet. Work the edges of the dough up along the edge.
4 c. walnuts, ground
1 c. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 cans apricot filling
4 egg whites
8 Tbsp. sugar
Combine walnuts, sugar and cinnamon together and mix well. Set t cup of nut mixture aside for the topping. Spread the remaining nut mixture on top of the dough in the cookie sheet. Roll the second section of dough and place on top of the nuts. Spread apricot filling evenly over dough. Roll third section and place over apricots.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Ten minutes before baking time is over, beat the egg whites until stiff. Add the sugar to the egg whites.
Remove torte from the oven and spread egg white mixture over the top. Sprinkle with remaining nuts and place in the oven to brown (for about 10 minutes). Cut into diamond-shaped pieces while still hot.
Aunt Helen made this torte for all holidays, weddings and special celebrations.
These bite-sized dumplings can be made from frozen and thawed sweet bread dough to save time. Form portions of the dough into 1-inch rolls, then cut small pieces and bake.
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
6 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting board
1/4 cup vegetable oil, more for greasing baking sheet
About 2 cups tap water
Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Add the salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Let set to proof, for about 10 minutes.
Sift together the flour and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Add the yeast mixture, 1/4 cup oil and enough of the 2 cups tap water to make a workable dough. Knead well. Let the dough rise until doubled.
Meanwhile, grease a cookie sheet with oil.
Punch down the dough. Cut off portions of the dough about the size of an egg. Roll each out on a floured board by hand to make rolls about 1 inch in diameter. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Place the pieces on the prepared cookie sheet and let rise for about 20 minutes.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the dumplings for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool, then separate. Place in a colander and pour boiling water over them. Drain quickly to prevent sogginess.
Combine these mixtures with half of the bobalky:
Sauerkraut: Saute 1 small onion, chopped, in 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Add 1 pound drained sauerkraut. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add to half of the bobalky.
Poppy seeds: Combine 1 cup ground poppy seeds, 2 tablespoons honey and 1/4 cup water. Add to the remaining bobalky.
Celebrating Slovak Style
By Karin Welzel
Sunday, December 11, 2005
From the straw scattered under the dining table to the honey that is spread onto thin oplatky to share among diners, the Slovak Christmas Eve meal — called the Vilija table — abounds with religious symbolism.
Christmas Eve is the most awaited day of the Christmas holiday season, according to Albina and Joseph Senko of Mt. Lebanon, members of Western Pennsylvania’s Slovak community.
“The big day is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day,” says Albina Senko, a native of Spis in Slovakia. She is a director of the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association, founded by her husband in 1997.
A certified public accountant with McKeever Varga & Senko and a certified financial planner, Joseph Senko also is honorary consul to the Slovak Republic.
The Senkos continue to observe the customs and traditions of their ancestry — Joseph Senko was born in Pittsburgh to Slovakian immigrants — and have made it a personal mission to educate Slovak-Americans and the general public about their culture. They are Roman Catholic, as are most of the inhabitants, but they say Byzantine and Orthodox Rite worshipers might follow similar traditions. Slovakia features a wide variety of dialects and customs, varying from region to region, village to village, family to family.
Albina Senko has her home decorated Slovak-style, including a table-size tree festooned with edible ornaments, such as whole walnuts and wrapped candy. There are intricate ornaments made from straw. On larger trees many years ago, family members used apples, paper roses and candles for decorations, too. The top of the tree often was a star made from straw.
Slovak cooks are busy on Christmas Eve, Albina Senko says. Sauerkraut-mushroom or pea soup, bobalky (sweet dough dumplings) and a variety of fish are a must, as well as meatless pirohy, to maintain the fast observed by the faithful during Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
In anticipation of the celebration, hay or straw is placed under the tablecloth or under the table — or both places — to symbolize the poverty of Christ in a humble manger. Some families place straw in the center of the Advent candle wreath, Albina Senko says, and a figure of the baby Jesus is placed on top.
The table is covered with a white cloth as a symbol of the swaddling clothes of the Christ child. Another tradition is to set an extra place setting to receive a stranger or in honor of a deceased loved one.
The dinner starts at the sighting of the first star of the evening.
“You tell the youngest child to look for it — it may be that it’s just to keep them occupied, because there is a lot of expectation,” says Albina, adding that there is just as much merriment at her house for Christmas Eve now as when her six children were small. She has grandchildren who are excited about the lights, the dinner and gifts.
After the house and table are blessed using a pine bough and holy water, a mulled red wine steeped with cinnamon sticks or herbs and honey is served to diners. Albina Senko sweetens her wine with cranberry juice, cinnamon-sugar and a dash of nutmeg.
The ceremony then focuses on a waferlike “bread” called oplatky (altar bread) that is broken, dipped in honey and distributed to each family member, starting with the husband to his wife. The head of the household dips his thumb in honey and makes the sign of the cross on the foreheads of each member of the household so they will be reminded to keep Christ foremost in their thoughts and praying that harmony will sweeten their lives.
Part of this ceremony focuses on daughters who are eligible for marriage.
Says Albina Senko: “The mother takes honey on her finger, makes a cross on their heads and says, ‘May you be sweet and find a husband soon!’ I did it with my own daughters.”
The next course usually is a tart soup — sauerkraut and mushroom is a popular choice — to represent the bitter destiny of Christ and his suffering for humanity. The family then loads up their plates with bobalky, sweet dough balls baked and mixed with sauerkraut or poppy seeds, symbolic of a plentiful crop. Joseph Senko likes a topping of cottage cheese on them, too.
Platters display a variety of fish that has been floured and quickly sauteed in oil. Because Slovakia is land-locked, carp and trout are common, but Albina Senko likes white fish such as tilapia to grace her table.
Also served are pirohy stuffed with fillings ranging from sauerkraut to cheese and potato; and English peas, which represent a bountiful growing season. Albina Senko folds peas into a mayonnaise-rich potato salad; other families fold peas into hot mashed potatoes. Holubky are cabbage rolls stuffed with ground mushrooms and rice.
The Vilija ends on a sweet note, with nut and poppy seed rolls. Walnuts in the shell and apples also are placed on the table.
None of the foods contain meat, still keeping with the Advent fast.
To wrap up the meal sweetly, Slovaks traditionally serve kolaci, pastry rolls made with sweet dough filled with poppy seeds, dried fruit or nuts.
In recognition of the empty seat at the table, none of the food is removed from the table after the diners are finished. “It’s for the people who couldn’t be there,” Albina Senko says. Before midnight in Slovakia, the animals in the barns are given remnants of the meal — the food from the table is supposed to make them healthy and productive for the coming year.
The Senkos host tours regularly to Slovakia to acquaint Americans with their culture. Albina Senko is a retired travel tour operator, as well as a frequent translator for Slovakian visitors and officials who visit Pittsburgh. It is their wish to improve the lives of their countrymen across the sea and bring Slovakian culture into the homes of the general public.
AND IN CLOSING…….MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL OF MY DUQUESNE AND HUNKY FRIENDS AND READERS!!! – Jim Volk, The Duquesne Hunky